How we experience the pandemic is shaped by who we live with
A range of variables will influence how we experience the social, economic and emotional shock of the pandemic. This week, we set out to look at how one set of these variables might be governing our perceptions, behaviours and beliefs: who we live with. We are interested, broadly, in two main comparisons: one between those who live alone to those who live with others; and another between those who live with children and those who do not. Each household composition could bring a unique and specific set of stresses.
Specifically, we look at five different clusters of indicators: (1) The number of individual anti-Corona behaviours people engage in; (2) The extent of “harmful” food behaviours; (3) Subjective well being; (4) Support for corona restrictions; and (5) Social indicators, such as trust and prosocial behaviour.
First of all, compared to the population as a whole, people living alone emerge as the cluster who have had the worst experiences during the pandemic. Individuals living in single-person households are more likely to report lower levels of life satisfaction than the overall sample average; are more likely to feel anxious or depressed (although less likely to feel anger); have the lowest trust in their neighbours; and are less likely to highly support government coronavirus countermeasures.
By contrast, individuals who live with one other person have generally coped better with the pandemic and its countermeasures. Compared to the sample average, they report higher subjective well-being, and are less likely to feel depression, anxiety or anger; they show the highest support for virus countermeasures; and still exhibit elevated trust in their neighbours. This group also reported snacking less; smoking less; and consuming less alcohol than individuals in any other type of household.
For people living with one or more other adults and with children, it is a mixed bag. For example, compared to the sample average, this group has the worst food consumption indicators. They are more likely to have gained weight, to snack more often, to smoke and to drink more than any other group. They also show higher levels of anxiety and aggression; and they are more likely to have experienced tension between members of their households. At the same time, people in this group exhibit the highest trust in their neighbours; and have a significantly higher subjective life satisfaction than those who live alone.
What arises from this, therefore, is clear evidence that single-person households have had a tougher time during the pandemic than the population as a whole. This manifests specially in having lower indicators of subjective well-being. Moreover, those living with children appear to experience stresses that those living in two-person households do not. This manifests itself both in behaviours, such as eating, drinking and smoking, but also in the experience of tensions in the household and levels of anger, which are much greater for this group than other household structures where there are people present to argue with.
Interestingly, we see these same delineations in real behavioural indicators, too. Those who live alone engage in the fewest counter-coronavirus behaviours; individuals living in two-person households the most; and those with children somewhere in-between. Whether this is a result of the emotional aspects of the pandemic or something more practical, remains to be seen. However, we believe this is partly due to how risk-aversion shapes decisions inside the household and how consensus, and the capacity to enforce it, is taking place. Those who live alone have a lower risk of infecting other people and might be laxer with their choices as a result. But those who live with someone else are not only responsible for their health but also for the health of the people they live with.
In our survey, we ask people How worried are you, personally, that you will become ill from the coronavirus? and How worried are you, personally, that friends or family will become ill from the coronavirus? We found that people are systematically more worried about loved ones getting ill than about themselves. The risk of infecting loved ones can explain why those not living alone are more likely to engage in preventive measures compared to those living with other people.
A similar pattern emerges when we look at prosocial behaviour (broadly, doing something nice for others with no expectation of receiving extrinsic personal reward), which perhaps cannot be so neatly explained away by practicalities. We see no difference in the overall number of prosocial behaviours engaged in by individuals across household types. However, those groups that have fared relatively better (or, perhaps more accurately, relatively less bad) are more likely to engage in pandemic-specific prosocial behaviours than those who have fared worse. Individuals in two-person households, followed by those in households with children, engage in relatively more COVID-specific prosocial behaviours than those in single-person households. By contrast, single-person households engage in more non-corona-specific prosocial behaviours. This seems to capture a clear attitudinal divide to the virus across household structures.
No common group of people could be said to be experiencing the pandemic well; but it is clear that some groups face stresses and strains that others do not. What this analysis confirms is that one’s household structure is important. Each structure brings a unique set of stresses and strains that spill over into our beliefs, perceptions and actions. How other forms of household, currently underrepresented in our data, are experiencing the pandemic is an open question, but what is clear is that these classifications matter; and that the consequences of these experiences extends into how people attempt to prevent the spread of the disease; how they perceive government efforts to do so; and to the actions they undertake more generally, both related to corona and not.
Government measures like opening schools could help to reduce the mental stresses that people living in households with children have experienced from the lockdown. Or, policies that target people living alone could alleviate the disruption effects that the pandemic is having on their mental health.
Life with Corona Survey was initiated by a team of social scientists from ISDC – International Security and Development Center, the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), Leibniz Institute of Vegetable and Ornamental Crops (IGZ), the University of Konstanz, and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS). The project is led by Tilman Brück (ISDC/IGZ), Patricia Justino (UNU-WIDER), Anke Hoeffler (University of Konstanz) and Wolfgang Stojetz (ISDC).
ISDC – International Security and Development Center gGmbH